U-2 Avionics Upgrade Paves Way For Command And Control Role

After shrugging off the recurring threat of replacement by unmanned systems, the U-2S is poised for a comprehensive avionics upgrade that Lockheed Martin says will position the spy plane for follow-on capability enhancements and a new lease on life at the heart of the U.S. Air Force’s ambitious Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) command and control plan.

  • Avionics Tech Refresh includes new mission computer and cockpit displays
  • Update provides bridge to follow-on upgrades planned under Dragon STAR
  • The ATR-configured U-2S may be used as a testbed for ABMS, Lockheed says

The Air Force’s $50 million investment in Lockheed Martin Skunk Works’ Avionics Tech Refresh (ATR) upgrade forms the latest part of a broader update plan funded through fiscal 2025 and underpins the service’s renewed intent to grow the strategic and tactical roles of the venerable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform. It also confirms Air Force plans to keep the U-2S in service as a complement to the unmanned Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, reversing earlier moves to sunset the fleet.

“We’re really breathing new life into the capabilities of this platform,” says Irene Helley, U-2 program director for Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “Most of these jets were being built in the late 1980s and ’90s and have only averaged about 17,000 flight hours, so [they] have about 80% of their airframe life remaining and still have so much more to give.” 

The upgrade is “about growing the mission,” Helley adds. “We are revamping all of the avionics [in a] system [that] really hasn’t been revisited since the early 2000s.”

Lockheed says the updated avionics system provides the backbone for enhanced mission capabilities and will build a bridge to a wider series of follow-on upgrades. Internally called Dragon STAR (Sensors Technology and Avionics Refresh), this broader long-term initiative also includes additional sensor technology and systems updates. 

The core of the avionics suite update is “a replacement for the existing avionics processor, which is experiencing a lot of diminishing manufacturing sources,” says Sean Thatcher, U-2 modernization program manager. Finding a replacement “is really the genesis from where the ‘tech refresh’ components came in for the aircraft,” he adds.

Other key elements include a mission computer, which “is actually a new addition to the U-2, and that’s really what starts to grow the mission itself,” Thatcher says. 

The mission computer is designed to the Air Force’s open mission systems (OMS) standard, which will enable the aircraft to integrate at various security levels with systems across air, space, sea, land and cyber domains. “We’re taking the OMS standard throughout the entire suite, so everything will be able to ride within the same network. Instead of being federated and their own little system, they’ll now be able to communicate with one another to allow that broader system to be much more capable.”

The ATR upgrade puts the high-altitude-capable U-2 on the path toward providing the Air Force with a key node in the service’s ABMS network construct, a vision that Lockheed Martin has been steering the aircraft toward for several years. Originally conceived as the Airborne Battle Management System, the “A” now stands for “Advanced” and embraces a more comprehensive Air Force ambition to share data with and between Army, Navy and Marine Corps assets across land, sea, air and space domains. Now, as the Skunk Works begins funded work on the initial U-2 avionics modification, Lockheed also believes the company’s ability to fast-track development efforts could play a key role in early test and deployment of the ABMS.

“There’s so much talk about what the future holds for JADC2 (joint all-domain command and control),” Helley says. “Because of our ability to take the concept straight to demonstration—and then to have the capability in the field in months, rather than years—the U-2 has really become the perfect testbed to prove out those capabilities. With this avionics tech refresh effort, we’re looking to be the first fully OMS-compliant fleet out there in the Air Force today.”

The upgraded U-2 “really is going to be kind of a testbed truck for whatever those future platforms of 2030 will look like,” Helley says. “It will be able to buy down the risk of those technologies and also serve the warfighter in today’s mission abroad.” Lockheed aims to field an interim capacity beginning as early as mid-2021 and hopes to begin the whole fleet modification effort in early 2022.